C. S. Lewis on the Secret of Happiness in a Letter to Child
“A good toe-nail is not an unsuccessful attempt at a hair.”
By Maria Popova
Although it may be a slim collection, C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children (public library | IndieBound) shines with the enormity of Lewis’s compassion and wisdom in responding to fan mail from his young readers, often imbuing his correspondence with a kind of subtle but profound advice on life, delivered unassumingly but full of wholehearted conviction.
Adding to his insight on duty and “the three things anyone need ever do” is this beautiful response to a boy named Hugh, who asked for a definition of “gaiety,” in a letter dated April 5, 1961.
A creature can never be a perfect being, but may be a perfect creature — e.g. a good angel or a good apple-tree. Gaiety at its highest may be an (intellectual) creature’s delighted recognition that its imperfection as a being may constitute part of its perfection as an element in the whole hierarchical order of creation. I mean, while it is a pity there sh[oul]d be bad men or bad dogs, part of the excellence of a good man is that he is not an angel, and of a good dog that it is not a man. This is the extension of what St. Paul says about the body & the members. A good toe-nail is not an unsuccessful attempt at a hair; and if it were conscious it w[oul]d delight in being simply a good toe-nail.
Half a century later, researcher-storyteller Brené Brown articulated a similar sentiment, making an eloquent case for the gifts of imperfection, and Alain de Botton cautioned us that these ideals we contort so hard to conform to may not even be our own. Perhaps at the end of the day “gaiety” is simply the ability to be our own imperfect being and fully inhabit its beingness.
Published April 19, 2012